On 9 January our one ship, the Steve Irwin, was aggressively attacked by the entire Japanese whaling fleet.
Three of the vessels — hunter killer harpoon ships — are faster and more manoeuverable than us and the fourth — the factory ship, the one we call the Cetacean Death Star — is eight times larger and armed with six very new and extremely powerful water cannons. All four ships are equipped with Long Range Acoustical Device weapons systems called LRAD’s.
It all started this morning, on the fifth day that we have prevented the whaling fleet from killing any whales. One of the harpoon vessels had uncovered its grenade tipped harpoon and was bearing down on a defenceless Fin whale.
Two small boats from the Steve Irwin were launched to block the harpoon and our helicopter took off to document the action.
The small boats were moving between the harpooner and the factory ship when two crew members on the Nisshin Maru aimed the LRAD directly at our pilot Chris Aultman.
Chris said that immediately he heard a rattling sound in his helmet and then he felt the vibrations in his legs and chest. He retreated before the device could disorient or confuse him. We were all shocked that they would target the helicopter. The chopper was not a threat to the whaling ships, it was involved in documentation only. It was completely irresponsible to aim that device at an aircraft. The potential to have caused our helicopter to crash was very real and very intimidating.
Ashley Dunn from Tasmania, a camerman with Animal Planet filming for the series Whales Wars from the helicopter, reported experiencing the same sensations as Chris Aultman.
Suddenly the two inflatable boats were struck by LRAD sonic blasts from the factory ship and one of the harpoon vessels. Steve Roest from Britain became instantly dizzy and fell forward, cutting open his head above the left eye.
As I watched this unfolding I suddenly found I had some serious problems of my own. The two other harpoon vessels were moving in fast directly towards the Steve Irwin and they were both on a collision course with us.
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As they approached closer we saw them man the LRAD devices and we saw one of the vessels trailing a long prop fouling rope.
What began then was a four hour ordeal of zigzagging and avoiding that rope, a task made very difficult with the sonic blasts causing physical discomfort.
I decided that the best move to avoid the fouling ropes was to steer into the approaching whalers to out intimidate them. It was a twisting, churning, chase as they sought to disable us and I fought the wheel to avoid them, a chase made even more dangerous when the third ship began to move towards us.
As I moved away towards the port side in the direction of the Nisshin Maru I was attempting to pass the factory ship on her starboard side when suddenly the massive hull of that ship turned in towards us. As I turned away from it, the Nisshin Maru kept turning into the Steve Irwin and forcing us back towards the harpoon boats.
The harpoon boats were whipping about like bi-planes in a dog fight so I radioed the two small inflatables, the Delta and the Gemini to act like fighter planes and cut off the attack of the hunter killer boats.
The two small boats made courageous and direct fast runs on the bows of the whalers, enduring the sonic blasts to throw small lines to foul the props of the attacking boats. Each time they did this they succeeded in turning the harpooner away from us.
When a harpoon boat would get by them, I was forced to make big S moves to keep them from crossing our bow.
The Japanese crew on the harpoon boats were throwing chunks of metal and ice at the inflatable boats. The water cannons came dangerously close.
Despite this the Gemini boat roared in and delivered 15 bottles of rotten butter onto the harpoon deck of the Yushin Maru #3, turning it into a nauseating stinkpot.
In order to keep the Nisshin Maru from attempting to ram the Steve Irwin, I dropped a long mooring line behind the ship to keep all the whalers off our tail.
But the harpoon boats with their superior speed kept moving closer and they came from three different sides.
If one of them succeeded in fouling our prop, we would be dead in the water, some two thousand miles from New Zealand or Australia. With the safety of my ship and crew in serious jeopardy, we had to evade these attacks.
As the Yushin Maru #1 pulled in close and was about to speed across our bow, I fired flares over them to scare them off. They retreated for a few moments and then moved back in again. This time I fired a line throwing rocket over top of them, laying down a long nylon rope directly across their deck. As the long line snaked overboard towards their prop, they backed off.
But all three of the harpooners kept coming in again and again. We could see the whalers on the deck flipping us off and throwing objects at the small boats. They were throwing pieces of lead and strangely enough golf balls.
During this melee the helicopter managed to land on the Steve Irwin to refuel and then lifted off again.
As the Yushin Maru #3 moved in the Gemini caught their prop and brought the harpooner to a dead stop, knocking them out of the chase.
As the chase raged on across the Ross Sea I had to bring in the small boats and the helicopter before they all ran out of fuel.
But the Japanese whalers were not going to make that easy. The Nisshin Maru turned its massive bulk towards us and we saw it bearing down on us with its powerful water cannons spewing frigid high pressure water with the force of jackhammer. We were being caught in between the LRAD blasts from two harpoon vessels. I could not slow down and Chris Aultman was forced to land his machine on the back deck while we were moving at full speed.
Next came the retrieval of the small boats and that was going to be extremely dangerous with the two harpoon vessels moving in so close.
I decided to take a page from the Wild West and began doing circles. This circle the wagons move completely took the whalers off guard and they found they could not penetrate the circle to cross our bow without risking a major collision.
The Yushin Maru #1 kept on our stern in the circle as the Yushin Maru #2 moved counter clockwise around our clockwise circle. I then called in the boats and the recovery training that Bosun Dan Bebawi had been drilling into his deck crew paid off. The Gemini raced up along side inside the circle and hooked onto hook from the hydraulic crane as the ship continued the high speed circling. With the Gemini onboard, the Delta came in and was retrieved. It was a difficult procedure, especially with the sonic blasts making our bodies extremely uncomfortable. I found my head starting to ache and a tight feeling in my chest.
Finally with the boats and the helicopter safely onboard I turned counter clockwise and dropped a long mooring line behind the ship to force the harpooner trailing us to retreat.
We then sped towards the Nisshin Maru as I turned towards any of the harpooners that attempted to move in on us. The Yushin Maru #3 after an hour was able to disentangle the line from the prop and they were underway again. Finally the harpooners sped off in different directions leaving us to continue our pursuit of the Nisshin Maru.
The crew were dazed by the LRAD’s but thrilled to know we had protected the safety of the ship. We had only three minor injuries. Five stitches for Steve and some ointment for the rope burn on my right hand. Laurens De Groot from the Netherlands received some wicked bruises on his fingers.
I had never in my life been attacked by four ships at once and it was a great relief to see them steam off away from us. We are however very prepared if they should return.
If the Japanese whalers thought we would be easily intimidated they learned very quickly that Sea Shepherd excels in the art of intimidation and quite frankly we have far more confrontational experience than these cowardly whalers who for the most part do little but shoot defenceless fleeing whales in the back.
And thus the day ended with our pursuit of the fleet resuming as we looked ahead to the sixth whale safe day.